The People's Theater/Part II, Chapter IV



Historical Drama

There is another type of drama which we may here consider, one in which Shakespeare excelled: the historical drama. The author of Henry IV and Richard III created a national epic covering English history from King John to Henry VIII, including the Wars of the Roses and Agincourt.

The historical play is a new type to us. Our French dramatists have neglected the form. There is a treasure-house of passions in our history, waiting to be thrown open to our actors as well as our public, who know so little of it, and that little so badly. France has perhaps the most heroic history of any since the days of Rome. Nothing that is human is foreign to her. From Attila to Napoleon, from the fields of Catalauni to Waterloo, from the Crusades to the Convention, the destinies of the world have been fought for and decided on her soil. The heart of Europe beat within the breasts of her monarchs, her thinkers, and her Revolutionary leaders. No matter how great this people has been in the realm of intellect it has been preeminently great in deeds. Action is the most sublime creation of France, its theater, its drama, its epic. France accomplished what other nations dreamed. We never wrote an Iliad, but we have lived a dozen; the Iliad of Charlemagne, of the Normans, of Godfrey of Boulogne, of Saint Louis, of Jeanne d'Arc, of Henry IV, of the Marseillaise, of the Corsican Alexander, of the Commune, and even in our own days, of Africa. Our heroes have touched the heights as often as our poets. No Shakespeare has celebrated their achievements; but Le Béarnais at the head of his band, or Danton on the scaffold, have spoken and acted genuine Shakespeare. During her existence France has touched the heights of happiness and sunk to the depths of despair; her story is a vast Human Comedy, a series of dramas where strong wills command whole armies of passions. Each epoch is a different poem, and yet throughout them all one is conscious of the persistence of indestructible characteristics, the destiny of a race: this is the grandiose and magnificent unity of the epic.

All this marvelous material remains untouched by French art; for we really cannot count the dime-novel dramas of Dumas the Elder, the sensational trifles of Sardou, and—L'Aiglon! The only writers who, like Vitet,[1] really understood the historical drama, were contemplative souls, who never intended their plays to be acted. "There is something false, something insulting to the intelligence in the disproportionate attention paid nowadays to the historical anecdote, the trifling incident of the past at the expense of what is vital and living in history. It is not our intention to give the dilettante of this sort of history a frigid miniature, interesting as a matter of fashion and local color; we must rather resuscitate the forces of the past, and revive their motive power to action."[2] "The drama of our day," wrote Schiller, "must combat the torpor, the sloth, the lack of character, and intellectual vulgarity of the day; it must therefore exhibit strength and character; it must stir and exalt the heart. Pure beauty is limited to the happy nations. When the poet addresses a generation of sick or troubled people, he must stir them with the greatest emotions." He must offer them an heroic art.

May the People's Theater create a great historical drama in France! The aristocratic poets have failed, in spite of their efforts. This failure might have been expected, for plays of this sort demand the spirit of a whole nation; without it you cannot do other than write conventional poems, of interest only to the erudite members of an academy.

No other sort of play is better adapted to the Theater we are seeking to found. Without considering the communicative emotion which is invariably aroused in the people by witnessing actual events rather than by seeing fictitious adventures; without considering the illusion, more nearly complete than in any other literary invention; without considering the magnetic force of example, and of the action which irresistibly springs from action, historical drama enjoys the inestimable advantage of shaping the conscience and the intelligence of the people.

The majority of those who take it upon themselves to educate the people demand that the drama shall offer a cut-and-dried solution to the problems of the day. Leaving aside the fact that some problems cannot be solved at present, and that it would be most unwise to try to hasten their solution, there is nothing more fatal to education than to impose ready-made formulas on the people. What really matters is the development of their minds through the intelligence, and the training of the powers of observation. History will teach them to come out of themselves, and observe the souls of others—friends and enemies alike. They will once more find themselves in the past, where characters are much the same as they are now, only different in appearance, with the same vices and weakness as themselves; and these they can recognize and possibly guard against. The confession of their own faults will perhaps induce them to be lenient toward others. The perpetual train of varying ideas, customs, and prejudices set before them may perhaps show them that their own ideas, customs, and prejudices are not the center round which the world revolves, and that justice and reason cannot be founded upon a few pharisaical rules; to contemplate transitory things, and not mistake them for eternal.

But this knowledge of the past does more than instil lessons of tolerance: such indulgent skepticism is but the first step. The spectacle of change only increases the solidity of what remains unchangeable. It is one of the chief assets of history that it separates the rock from the sands that cover it. In place of the blind instinct of the mob it furnishes the moral unity of the family, cemented by the triple bond of blood, thought, and trials shared. It need not of necessity awaken fanatic chauvinism, but only a spirit of fraternal solidarity among all the men of one nation. Let each individual realize the links binding him to the community, and may his life become richer from his knowledge of the lives that have been and are to be. With such a conscience, he will see more urgent reasons for action.[3] The spirit which is evoked out of past centuries is for the centuries to come. If we would create strong souls, let us nourish them with the strength of the whole world.

The world—for the nation alone is not enough. A hundred years ago the enlightened Schiller said: "I write as a citizen of the world. Early in life I exchanged my fatherland for humanity."[4] Almost a century ago, the serene Goethe said: "National literature means very little today: world literature is at hand, and each one must labor to make it an accomplished fact."[5] And he added: "If I am not mistaken, the French will reap the greatest benefit from the movement."

Then let us realize his prophecy! Let us lead back the French to their own history, which is the source of a people's art; but let us take care not to exclude the historic legends of other peoples. Undoubtedly, our own history lies nearer our hearts, and our first duty is to develop it. But the great events and deeds of all the nations must find a place on our stage. As Cloots and Thomas Paine were elected members of the Convention; as Schiller, Klopstock, Washington, Priestley, Bentham, Pestalozzi, and Kosciusko were made French citizens through Danton's decree—let the heroes of the world become our heroes likewise. May France be their second fatherland, especially for the people's heroes. The People's Theater shall be open to everyone who is of or for the people. Let us construct in Paris an epic of all Europe.

We must also be careful not to remain merely the singers of the past. The new energy we shall generate must not be allowed to stand idle. Action must spring from the spectacle of action. Once we have gathered our forces and become conscious of our power, let us march forward! Armed with all the greatness of the past, we shall strive to create the new man, a man of stalwart moral fiber and of truth. The story of past heroism, such as I have described it, is not a lantern hung from the rear end of a train, casting an uncertain light over the road that has been traveled; it is a lighthouse in the night, marking the position of the ship in the ocean, whence it comes and whither it is going. Separated from the past, the present has no meaning, just as the past is without significance apart from the present. Both past and present must unite to give meaning to the greatest thing of all: Life. The life of all time must be consolidated into a unified whole, one being with a thousand bodies, and strive from every direction to attack the universe, which some day it will dominate.

  1. Vitet, Les Barricades (May, 1586), Les États de Blois (Dec., 1588), and La Mort de Henri III (Aug., 1589).
  2. Preface to my play Le 14 Juillet.
  3. "History is to the people what memory is to individuals: the thread connecting our yesterday with our today, forming the basis of our very existence and, through experience, constituting the means of all perfection." Lamartine, in 1864.
  4. 1783.
  5. Goethe to Eckermann, Jan. 31, 1827. And elsewhere in the Conversations he says: "Ampère stands indeed so high in culture that the national prejudices, apprehensions, and narrow-mindedness of many of his countrymen lie far behind him; and in mind he is far more a citizen of the world than a citizen of Paris. But I see a time coming when there will be thousands in France who think like him." (May 4, 1827.)

    "It is evident, and has been for a long time, that the greatest geniuses of all nations have kept all of humanity before their eyes. You will invariably perceive this general idea standing out above national ideas and the peculiarities of the writer. … The most beautiful works are those which belong to all mankind.** (In Notes and Fragments, apropos of Carlyle's translation of German novels, 1827.)